Almost a decade ago, the then Home Secretary Theresa May made a series of changes to the UK’s immigration system, implementing what would become known as the ‘hostile environment policy’. Brazen in its intentions, the government made clear that the measures taken under this policy would make life in the UK extremely difficult to navigate for those living here undocumented.
In 2012, May told the Telegraph that the aim “was to create here in Britain a really hostile environment for illegal migration”. In the years that followed, migrants in the UK – whether that be visa holders, those with settled status or those with irregular status – would be made to jump through hoops to prove themselves eligible to access the likes of healthcare, housing, employment and public funds.
Despite the hostile environment policy purporting to target ‘only’ those residing in the UK illegally, it soon transpired that such a combative approach to immigration would breed a culture of distrust, allowing for an abuse of authority and engendering both racism and discrimination.
The hostile environment required landlords to carry out immigration checks on potential tenants, allowing the private rental sector to become a hotbed for discrimination. Similarly, it saw NHS staff forced into the role of border guards and served as a driving force behind one of the greatest injustices: the Windrush scandal.
A Decade on: IPPR Evaluates the Hostile Environment Policy
Now, almost a decade later, British think tank the IPPR (The Institute for Public Policy Research) has released its analysis of the hostile environment, presenting six policy options to address its adverse impacts on individuals and communities.
Such a combative approach to immigration would breed a culture of distrust, allowing for an abuse of authority and engendering both racism and discrimination
Perhaps most crucially, the IPPR’s research finds little evidence to suggest that the hostile environment has fulfilled its ‘aim’ of encouraging undocumented migrants to leave the UK voluntarily. Instead, it has served primarily to hurt marginalised communities, has created further barriers to the likes of healthcare and housing, and has pushed vulnerable people into destitution.
Repealing Key Aspects of the Hostile Environment
Since the hostile environment policy introduced provisions on the ‘right to rent’ and ‘right to work’, studies have found that ethnic minorities have been disproportionately impacted. Even those who have the legal right to work and rent in the UK have found themselves being mistakenly targeted, as evidenced by the Windrush scandal. IPPR’s report suggests that some – if not all – of the ‘right to rent’ and ‘right to work’ legislation introduced under the hostile environment ought to be repealed.
This includes legislation such as the current civil penalty scheme for employers who recruit individuals without evidence of their right to work in the UK and the introduction of penalties for landlords who let to tenants without evidence of their right to rent in the UK under the Immigration Act 2014. Similarly, it suggests that NHS charging regulations ought to be repealed since these have impacted many who should in fact receive free healthcare.
IPPR’s research finds little evidence to suggest that the hostile environment has fulfilled its ‘aim’ of encouraging undocumented migrants to leave the UK voluntarily
Rather than encouraging those without legal status to leave the UK, it has instead resulted in a dangerous deterrent effect for many migrants who fear they may be charged upfront when accessing vital services and could subsequently be detained or targeted for deportation.
Reforming the Home Office
IPPR’s report makes clear that sweeping reforms to the Home Office’s practices and culture are crucial. Building on the ‘Windrush Lessons Learned’ review, the IPPR found that serious failures by the Home Office as well as a vicious ‘culture of disbelief’ has led to life-altering decisions being made ‘on the basis of anecdote, assumption and prejudice.’ It also found that the department’s enforcement of ‘right to work’ checks disproportionately impacted South Asian and Chinese businesses.
The report acknowledges that the Home Office was close to being labelled as institutionally racist by the ‘Windrush Lessons Learned’ review and suggests that evidence-based policymaking and safeguarding against racism and discrimination must be made top priority.
It puts forward several suggestions for reform, such as that the Home Office should create an independent body responsible for migrants’ rights and that it should periodically assess the impact of all proposed and existing policies on ethnic inequalities.
Introducing an Amnesty
The IPPR suggests that the government could implement a temporary pathway for those living in the UK undocumented, allowing them to become regularised without any repercussions from immigration enforcement.
It explains that the hostile environment is ‘intentionally designed such that checks, charges and data-sharing in public and private services severely limit the quality of life for people without immigration status.’ An amnesty allowing those who are undocumented to become regularised – instead of criminalising and ostracising them – could have a direct impact on improving the lives of those eligible.
However the think-tank recognises that this proposal is not without flaws and may pose its own issues. Stakeholders voiced their concerns regarding how previous attempts at amnesties have in fact gone hand in hand with a doubling down on immigration enforcement. Others outlined that an amnesty would not address the root problems of the hostile environment policy.
The IPPR’s proposed policy changes similarly emphasised that improving pathways to regularised immigration status is vital. It noted that while there are currently various pathways to regularisation, these tend to be lengthy, convoluted and costly.
What’s more, frequent changes to immigration legislation paired with a shortage of free legal advice means that these routes are often inaccessible to those who need them. Instead, it argues pathways to regularisation should be simplified and that, in doing so, this may help to tackle the exploitation and abuse of vulnerable migrants by providing an incentive for them to come forward.
The Home Office should create an independent body responsible for migrants’ rights and periodically assess the impact of all proposed and existing policies on ethnic inequalities
Access to safe services including the NHS, social services and policing were also underlined as crucial to eradicating some of the most damaging aspects of the hostile environment. Data sharing between these vital services and immigration enforcement must be brought to an end as the repercussions have proved devastating.
A final policy option suggested by the IPPR was the introduction of ID cards to help avoid a repeat of the Windrush scandal. However the think-tank admits that the idea of ID cards was heavily critiqued by the majority of experts and stakeholders with whom they spoke. The use of digital ID cards may breach the right to data privacy and fundamental freedoms. This is a specific risk for migrants. ID cards may actually exacerbate the hostile environment, despite its good intentions.
The policy suggestions put forward within the IPPR’s report highlight a number of critical areas of improvement for the UK Home Office to consider. The hostile environment – or ‘compliant environment’ as the government now refers to it – must be brought to an end once and for all.